|Q: I found this little passport Dan mask in a flea market for a bargain price. What made me interested was just the rear, which looked older. It was only 20 cm long, more or less. Can you please give me your opinion? Monica, 1803
A: Of course, this is some sort of Dan mask. It has several interesting features. There are two pairs of extra holes for fastening it to a belt or a body part. The carving does not appear to have been done with modern steel tools. And, as Monica points out, the rear looks authentically old.
There are perhaps more Dan masks than any other kind. Here is what Rand African Art introduced his huge section on the Dan with: Masks are the most important form of the Dan art. Many of the other forms of sculpture are derived from the mask and what the mask symbolizes. Numerically, more masks are created than any other form of sculpture. Spiritually, masks are perceived to embody the most powerful of spirit forces. Socially, masks are the means of bringing control and order to village life. Masks provide the strongest impressions of a young Dan person’s earliest experience, as their importance is reinforced by their presence at all significant events.
Masks are empowered by the strongest of supernatural spirit forces, called gle. Like dii, gle inhabit the dark forest, particularly where the trees grow high and dense. Gle long to enter into and participate in the ordered world of the village but, being invisible, cannot until a visible form for each is made. The nature of that form, a mask and complete masquerade ensemble meant to represent the personality of the gle, is seen in a dream. In addition, the gle must reveal its intended function in the dream or that dream is considered useless. The dreamer, who must be an initiated member of the men’s society, reports the dream to the council of elders. They then decide whether the masquerade ensemble should be created for that man to wear and perform.
The carver carves the wooden face, and this is accompanied by attire that includes forest materials such as raffia, feathers, and fur. It is believed that each gle has its own personality, character, dance, speech patterns, likes, and dislikes, and it is given a personal name. The wearer of the mask takes on all these characteristics and qualities when he wears the mask ensemble. Having come from the unknown realm of the dark forest, a gle is thought to be unpredictable. Therefore it always has an attendant with it to control it as well as to interpret its speech. A